William Byron’s special tribute prompts emotional memories of joy and pain for Hendrick Motorsports

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – William Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet will sport a special connection to Rick Hendrick’s late son in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway.

It’s far from the only reminder that Byron has been providing the NASCAR team owner lately.

As Byron, the sandy-haired 19-year-old with a fair complexion, has excelled in the Xfinity Series this season, his resemblance to Ricky Hendrick, the scion who was among 10 killed in the Oct. 24, 2004 crash of a team plane, has become more obvious – most recently when Byron won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My daughter was watching Indy, and she texted me right after the race and said, ‘Dad, that’s spooky how much William looks like Ricky,’ ” Rick Hendrick said. “I’m kind of reliving some of Ricky’s early days with watching William now. He’s a special young man. Their mannerisms and everything. William’s super polite.”

William Byron waits in the garage during Xfinity practice at Darlington. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

During Saturday’s NASCAR America and Countdown to Green before the Xfinity race at Darlington, NBCSN ran a feature (video above) on Byron’s throwback tribute (which echoes the scheme that Ricky Hendrick drove to a 2001 win in the Camping World Truck Series) and the origins of the backward hat celebration that Ricky Hendrick inspired after every Hendrick Motorsports victory.

The tradition started through Ricky’s friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who might have started the trend by wearing his hats backward during his first few seasons in NASCAR.

Ricky began mimicking Earnhardt, much to chagrin of his father, and continued the practice after retiring from driving and becoming a full-time car owner who won the 2003 title with Brian Vickers.

“I always said, ‘Don’t turn your hat around, don’t wear your hat in the garage like that,’ ” Hendrick said. “Then he won the championship with Brian Vickers, he turned his hat around on the stage that night. Everybody knew that was his trademark, but I always would tell him not to do it.”

It became a postrace victory tradition at Hendrick in the first race since the plane crash that also took the lives of team president John Hendrick, engine builder Randy Dorton, general manager Jeff Turner. After Jimmie Johnson won at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his crew turned their hats backward and pointed skyward in victory lane, which has become a part of every Hendrick Motorsports celebration.

“We were all very aware of Ricky’s like and his father’s dislike of the hat being worn in that direction,” Johnson said. “Ricky literally would design his hats to look good going backward and have Hendrick Motorsports in a certain spot, the car number in a certain spot. It was something that was just his style and what he was about. Of course, his dad being as buttoned up as he is wasn’t in love with the idea. But now it’s a great tradition, and it makes us all smile when we get to put our hats on backwards.”

It’s one of the only memories Johnson retains from the tumultuous week after the crash. The seven-time champion considered Ricky Hendrick a close friend who quietly helped lobby his father to get Johnson the No. 48 Chevrolet ride.

When Rick Hendrick called to congratulate him on the Atlanta win, both had trouble forming words.

“The emotions were so deep, I recall not being able to understand what he was saying because he was so emotional, and clearly, I was in a similar space, too,” Johnson said. “To lose 10 people, I found my mind would focus on one individual and quickly shift to another. It was almost as if we couldn’t get a break in our minds from the loss and the heartache that came with it. It was a really, really tough period of time. I still don’t know how we even got to Atlanta. It was so emotional and so tough, it’s a wonder we even got to the racetrack. That five-day stretch, there wasn’t a dry eye that entire period of time.”

Though they weren’t on the flight, Johnson’s wife, Chandra, and Rick Hendrick were on the original passenger manifest, which was read to team members after the plane went down.

“I knew my wife was with me at the track, but still that reality of hearing the manifest being read and she could have been on that airplane,” Johnson said. “Just swirling emotions in so many different directions. Just a really tough moment.”

The death of Ricky Hendrick cast doubt on the future at Hendrick Motorsports, which was grooming him to take over the company and allow his father to focus on his automotive empire.

Rick Hendrick had considered leaving NASCAR until a teamwide meeting a few weeks later at its headquarters in Concord.

“We lost so many people that day,” he said. “If you didn’t have a really unbelievably tight company, we wouldn’t have survived. They pulled together and went on to honor those folks.

“Your faith, your family and your friends are really all you’ve got, and that’s what you’re going to leave here with. And I felt that way when I saw William’s car, and I see this kid that looks like (Ricky Hendrick). It’s spiritual. It’s emotional. It’s special.”

NASCAR America: Importance of keeping NASCAR connected to grassroots racing

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The importance of grassroots racing to the future of NASCAR is a constant subject these days thanks to the likes of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson.

Now NASCAR America’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton get their chance to sound off on the subject.

On Tuesday’s episode, the panel of analysts discussed why keeping NASCAR connected to the short tracks and lower series across the country is vital to the sport’s future.

“We don’t have that national series running old short tracks that draws people to the race track but also draws them to the TV on Saturday and Sunday,” Burton said.

Earnhardt brought up an attempt by Bristol Motor Speedway to purchase the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, last year.  The attempted failed.

“My heart was broken because I thought we had a real opportunity to bring one of the touring series, either the Truck or Xfinity, back to Fairgrounds,” Earnhardt said. “That’s where I think we’re broken or disconnected. The late model guys and the guys that are running on these local tracks don’t have the connection to the Truck Series or Xfinity Series. They need to take those series, Truck or Xfinity, back to the short tracks and bridge that link.”

The three analysts went on to discuss the short tracks and races that were part of their formative racing years.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Auto Club Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. was once again in championship form Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

That fact frustrated some drivers, especially Kyle Busch.

You can hear his frustrations and more in this week’s Scan All.

Here are some highlights.

— “I mean, he’s a (expletive) idiot for racing that hard 30 laps into a (expletive) race.” – Chad Johnston, crew chief for Kyle Larson after contact with Kevin Harvick wrecked Harvick on Lap 39.

Johnston’s tone cooled once Harvick owned up to his mistake.

“Harvick’s taking responsibility for that, so don’t sweat it,” Johnston said.

— “You did a hell of a job keeping it off that inside wall. I was watching on the roof cam and was like, ‘Oh Lord, don’t hit that one.” – Rodney Childers, crew chief of Harvick.

— “I don’t know what the (expletive) he’s got going on, but damn I don’t have that.” – Kyle Busch observing how much better Martin Truex Jr.’s car was performing

— “This thing went from absolutely horrible to even worse than that.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

— “I don’t even know what the hell we’re doing, what the hell’s going on and what we’re going to do next. It’s been the same all day. We haven’t made any ground on it.” – Kyle Busch as he struggled to keep pace with Larson and Truex.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Biggest storylines through five race weekends

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After five races in the Cup season, NASCAR America’s analysts assessed what the biggest storylines are ahead of this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton took turns sharing what’s stood out to them.

Jeff Burton started off by saying Kevin Harvick‘s success was the “easy answer.”

Burton discussed his surprise at Chevrolet teams underperforming.

“It reminds you in racing that you don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens,” Burton said. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more performance from the new Chevy body.”

Earnhardt was surprised at how big Martin Truex Jr’s margin of victory was on Sunday. He beat Kyle Busch by 11.6 seconds.

“I felt like in the first couple of races, maybe we got tricked into thinking the new inspections process had maybe leveled the playing field a little bit, even though Harvick won three in a row,” Earnhardt said. “Then Truex goes out and does what he did last year, maybe even better than he did last year.”

Letarte said his “big shock” for 2018 has been the “lack of change.”

“It’s the same players leading laps that we saw in 2017,” Letarte said. “Everyone is trying to catch up. I’ve always found it the hardest to continue to push your guys, continue to push your race cars when you’re already winning. It’s easy when you’re getting beat to motivate everybody.”

Earnhardt also observed how younger drivers have struggled to shine through five races.

“Across the board, the young guys still aren’t measuring up to the veterans yet,” Earnhardt said.

Watch the above video for more.

Daniel Hemric to make Cup debut at Richmond Raceway in April

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Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric will make his Cup debut next month at Richmond Raceway, Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday on Fox Sports 1’s “NASCAR Race Hub.”

Hemric, 27, will drive the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR at Richmond on April 21. He will also compete in the Sept. 30 race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

A native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Hemric will be sponsored by Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff in both races. The company serves as an associate sponsor on Hemric’s No. 21 car in the Xfinity Series.

“You only get one chance to make your Cup Series debut, and it is pretty incredible to know that I am able to do it with Richard Childress Racing and with a partner such as Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff,” Hemric said in a press release. “RCR and Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff have been so influential in so many drivers’ careers – a lot of my heroes growing up. To know they will play a large role in the next step of my career and my initial Cup Series debut is very special.”

MORE: Daniel Hemric’s racing career saved by a Ford Mustang

“Since joining our organization, Daniel Hemric has shown his determination and dedication to this sport both on and off the track,” said Richard Childress in a press release. “Making his Cup Series debut is the next step in his career and we are proud to have him take that step with RCR.”

Hemric is in his second full-time season with RCR in the Xfinity Series. Last season he was part of the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Through five races this season, Hemric is fifth in the standings.

“To make my debut at Richmond will make me feel at home, since I spent years coming up through the ranks at short tracks across the country,” Hemric said. “To do it again in front of my hometown crowd in Charlotte later in the year is an overwhelming feeling. Many people have laid everything on the line to get me to this point and I am extremely grateful to all of those people for putting me in position to get this shot in the Cup Series. These are going to be two very special weekends, to say the least.”

The Richmond race weekend won’t be Hemric’s first time in a Cup car. He was called on by RCR last year to drive Ryan Newman’s car in a Goodyear tire test on the CMS road course. He also practiced and qualified Paul Menard‘s car last November at Texas Motor Speedway.

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